From Syria

Hey, Ladies! What to Wear in the Middle East

Last week, my esteemed colleague Celeste Brash published her Top 5 clothing picks for women traveling to hot, conservative countries.

It’s a great list, but in the heart of the Middle East, you’re dealing with dry heat and more-conservative modesty norms. So I thought I’d share what I usually pack for a Middle East trip. Let’s begin with a parable:

I once saw a Russian woman in hot pants at the Pyramids. First, I had an urge to grab her ass. Then I got heatstroke just looking at her.

Moral: There are two very good reasons to keep your skin covered in the Middle East. First, of course, is it’s just polite, and even normal people like myself (er) can respond strangely to the sight of naked flesh if they don’t see it often. Second, that sun will kill you.

I tend to spend most of my time in cities, so I want to look dressier, rather than sporty. But most of my wardrobe can adapt fine to a day in the desert or a hike up Mount Sinai.

1. Long-sleeve, button-front silk shirts.
I used to pick these up at thrift stores all the time, and I still do occasionally find one, but I have less time to comb the racks. I haven’t found a reliable first-hand source for them yet, but I always keep an eye out.

Hmmm... This doesn't look bad. But $98? That's why: thrift stores.

Silk is really sturdy and super-lightweight. It dries in a second, if you do a sink wash, and it’s hardy enough to handle whatever they do at the drop-off laundry. Buy dark colors, so it’s not see-through, and/or patterns (to hide stains).

If you can’t find silk, then button-front lightweight cotton shirts are fine. Either way, you want them to be longish–hanging over half your butt, if possible, and the sleeves should be full length. You can roll the sleeves up to your elbows, or keep them buttoned at your wrist if you’re in a very conservative situation, or cold.

2. Skinny ankle-length cotton or nylon pants with pockets.
Contrary to Celeste’s advice, I think tight clothing is A-OK. It makes you look more city-fied. And it’s not violating any modesty norms in the ME, contrary to what you might think.

I wasn’t planning on my super-skinny cropped cargo pants from J. Crew to be a travel essential, and now I wish I’d bought two pairs.

They’re very tight at the ankle, so they don’t slide down when I’m using a squat toilet. And the pockets are super-useful. I have other ankle-length pants, in nifty nylon-cotton blends, but they always lose because they don’t have pockets.

Typical capris, which end right below the knee or mid-calf, don’t do it for me. That exposes too much flesh for my taste. Too much sunburn and ogling potential.

And I wouldn’t go for leggings because, well, they’ve already got plenty of camel toes in the Middle East! (Thank you, ladies and germs! I’ll be here all week.)

3. Linen trousers.
OK, this is as close as I get to the typical desert-explorer look. I have a couple of pairs in brown and slate gray. Side pockets look proper enough (though you have to be careful about change falling out in buses). Linen is sturdy, and its rumpled-ness is somehow acceptable in high society, but you can also hike in them.

I just roll them up a couple of inches before venturing into any sketchy toilet situation.

4. Silver shoes.
You can wear the daggiest orthopedic things, but if they’re silver (or gold), you suddenly look like a fashion queen. These Doc Martens totally rocked in Cairo–nice thick soles so you can slog through muck.

I'm sorry I abandoned you in Ras al-Khaimah for getting too stinky! Next pair, I'll wear those little socklets, I promise.

It’s a bonus if your shoes are slip-off: easier to go in and out of mosques.

I also just bought these, from Ecco–not slip-off, but I think will do double-duty for low-level hiking.

5. Sports bras and tank tops.
The underpinnings. I’m not at all busty, but I do wear a sturdy bra when I go to Cairo. Young dudes in the street are like those detectors for earthquakes–they’re sensitive to the slightest jiggle.

Honestly, this might be slight overkill on my part–I’m making up for my first time in Cairo, when I actually walked around without a bra, which I wish someone had taken me aside and said, “Ahem.” Instead, some crazed dude grabbed my boob and then practically went skipping off down the street with glee. I think he might’ve felt a little like when I saw the Russian chick in hot pants: Must. Touch. It!!!

On top of a sturdy bra, I wear a very thin cotton tank top that’s very long. This guarantees my shirt isn’t see-through and covers up any gaping between button-front shirt and low-rise pants, or if wind from a bus speeding by blows my shirt up. Right now Uniqlo is making good super-long tank tops. I got some C&C California ones years ago that are nearly threadbare now, but that’s OK, since they’re just an under-layer.

Sort-of 6. Ankle-length skirt, with pockets.
Honestly, I have one of these, and I dutifully pack it every time, but I just can’t quite get on board with it. It’s relatively stylish–linen, tailored, with patch pockets. But it’s just outside the realm of my normal style, and I feel a little too much like Sensible Lady Adventurer when I wear it.

But I’m mentioning it because someone once pointed out a very good reason to wear a skirt while traveling: if you ever have to relieve yourself on the side of a road, perhaps with your whole bus looking on, a skirt gives you a little privacy.

So…just putting it out there.

7. Giant scarf.
Totally agree with Celeste on this. Always have one in your bag. I have a bunch of wonderful silk ones from Syria (sigh), but last year I got a giant (18″ x 84″) not-silk one in Morocco that has turned out to be more useful. It’s a little cozier in a/c situations, and slippery silk is tough as mosque-visit headscarf–this has a little texture so it stays in place.

Looks deceptively small...

And a really, really big scarf with distinctive colors can dress up a whole outfit. My Moroccan scarf has gold thread in it. With my shoes, it’s like an ensemble!

8.Short dresses.
I’m just developing this, but I have a nice mid-thigh stretchy tunic dress that I really like, so I tried it out with my little ankle-length pants, and presto–I’m covered up and hip-looking. Or, you know, as hip as it gets these days.

By the by, I totally yoinked this look off the streets of Cairo. Another Cairo-cool-girl standby: tight black long-sleeve top, with whatever crazy top you want over it. Only recommendable in winter, though, as having anything up under your armpits means you’ll have to do laundry sooner.

9. One pearl.
Thanks to Celeste, I have a beautiful one, from Kamoka Pearls. As she said when she gave it to me, it’s great travel jewelry. Like everything, sturdy and lightweight, but also a nice touch of bling.

10. Crunchable brimmed hat.
I’m undoing all my don’t-look-like-a-backpacker effort above, but I swear my brain will melt instantly if I don’t wear a hat. Right now, I have a kind of funky plaid one that I got in Thailand, with about a two-inch brim. Before that I had this funny crochet faux-fedora thing.

Do you have your own old-reliable clothing pieces? I’d love to hear them!

Thailand, Let Me Count the Ways, part 2

So, all this, and I would love to say the Thais are my people, that I have found my true heart-home on the globe.

And yet. And yet… I can’t. There is a connection that isn’t happening, some part of me that doesn’t throw off sparks when I come into contact with Thailand. I have felt it scores of times in Mexico, and in Syria, and even occasionally in Egypt, when I can cut through the smog and the traffic and the tourist fascination.

Is it because there is just too much like-going-with-like in Thailand? There, I’m on board with everything already. In Mexico, I feel like I’m visiting what could be my better self, if I stretched—my self that’s quicker to laugh but also more polite, that paints the room in cobalt blue and rose pink, that drinks without fretting about it. Syria is the model me that has perfected the art of hospitality, developed my sense of taste without being snobbish about it and learned to live with dignity no matter the circumstances.

More practically, though, the answer may simply be language. I speak Spanish and Arabic. Except for the ten hours Peter and I spent in a classroom in Bangkok near the end of our trip, I don’t speak Thai.

Those five days of classes were thrilling, though. Why did no one tell me there are languages in which you don’t have to conjugate verbs? That pronouncing tones can be fun, and not impossible after all? Our teacher was a delight, and even if we don’t recall anything we learned*, we at least made a Thai friend.

I rely on words. Even as I’ve switched to more of a photo format on this blog, I’ve felt like I’m cheating. The sensation produced by a great picture somehow doesn’t count if I haven’t hashed it out in three too-long paragraphs, then pruned it all back to one tight one.

As much as I felt freed up last year when we went to Thailand and bumbled around, language-less and reduced to pointing and smiling and giving the thumbs-up, I also felt cut loose, bobbing along in the current and never mooring anywhere or with anyone.

A lot of people, probably most of them, travel like this. But a lot of people are simply better at this style of travel than I am—they’re more outgoing, and they can make a real connection with people by pointing at lines in a phrasebook. But coupled with my more passive style, my lack of fluency, or even functionality, makes me a pure spectator.

I would never say I’m fluent in Spanish or Arabic, but I can order in a restaurant, buy bus tickets and crack the occasional joke—all without thinking too much about it and worrying over what kind of impression I’m making.

I think this is the key: if I can slip off my cloak of self-consciousness (like an invisibility cloak—but the exact opposite), there’s a chance for me to really see the person I’m talking to and really listen to what they’re saying. Less me, more them—probably a lesson I could use in any language, in any country.

It appears the only solution to my Thailand quandary is…more. More visits, more study, more food. And plenty more time with my bootleg Rosetta Stone software.

And in the meantime, I won’t take my grasp of Spanish pleasantries for granted, nor my ability to read Arabic.

*except the phrase paw dee, which means “just right.” But even that doesn’t really count because it turns out I already knew it, because my mom has been saying it for decades, to mean something more like “close enough.” I didn’t even know it was Thai until I took this class—it was jarring to hear a familiar phrase in a list of other non-cognates.

It must’ve worked its way into the family idiolect through my ex-stepdad, who was a monk in a Thai monastery for a while before he showed up on our patio when I was six or so. In my memory, he was wearing his saffron drawstring pants the first time I saw him, and he probably said, “Paw dee” right then, for all I know.

5 Essential Travel Strategies

Recently, a friend suggested I write a book about how I travel. But I doubt I’m the only person who thinks this way, and it doesn’t really merit 200 pages of musing. And I’m happy to give away my so-called wisdom for free. These are the things I tend to do on the road. How about you?

Rule #1: Accept any FOOD you’re given.
Food is the easiest, most concrete way to make a connection with someone with whom you might not share anything but this moment when you’re both munching on pig-blood-soaked coconut and smiling at each other. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t speak the same language, or live under different political systems or whatever.

Ag Museum: Dinner!

Besides, refusing food is just rude. Somebody is being hospitable in the most fundamental way they know–offering you something that will keep you alive.

Vegetarian? You can be veg when you order your own food. But when someone shares his plate with you at a restaurant, or gives you a free kabob just because you smile sweetly and say thank you in the local language–just take it. You’ll live.

So you might get sick. Big deal. You’ll get over it–and you’ll even have another good story to tell. (Celiac–fine, you get a pass.) Just smile, say thanks and eat the thing. You might even like it. (I liked that pig-blood stuff! Who knew?)

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